No doubt you’ve heard a lot about the young, adventurous solo travelers out there taking fabulous trips to remote spots all over the world, and blogging about it as they go. I applaud them and love to read their stories and see their social media posts.
But when it comes to the slightly older “seasoned” traveler? There isn’t much buzz.
I happen to know from experience, though, that the thirst for travel isn’t quenched in your youth. As far as I’m concerned, the desire to see more and more of the world only gets stronger as the decades go by.
What likely does change, however, is the way you travel, as well as new challenges you face as a mature traveler. That dormitory-style hostel you stayed in as a young backpacker probably isn’t going to work anymore. And things like learning new public transportation systems or new technologies can seem more difficult. All of those little issues are compounded when you’re traveling alone.
Over the course of my recent solo trips to Hong Kong, Quebec, Berlin, Copenhagen, and the Czech Republic, I’ve come up with some tips that have made the going easier and more enjoyable. Here are a dozen of my favorites:
1. Jet lag: Lean in!
I don’t know about you, but jet lag seems to affect me more and more as I get older. I’m not a morning person by nature, but on my summer trip to the Czech Republic, I became an early riser for the entire two weeks. I mean REALLY early; I was wide awake at 3 or 4 a.m. for much of the trip.
Since the effect of a nine or 10-hour time difference is largely unavoidable, I suggest giving in and taking advantage of the extra morning hours. As soon as the sun begins to rise, head out the door. You will almost always find a neighborhood coffee shop that’s open. Or check out the outdoor tourist spots that will become clogged with people in a few hours. In Prague, not only were the crowds virtually non-existent on the city’s cobblestone streets in the early-morning hours, but the sunlight was at its loveliest. I took some of my best photos as the sun was rising.
Strangely, the early mornings seemed to energize me, rather than wear me out. I chalk it up to my experience dealing with those occasional nights at home when sleep is elusive – one of the “perks” of getting older.
2. Tune in to audio guides
On my last morning in Prague, I realized that I had yet to see several main attractions, including the historically significant Wenceslas Square and the elegant Municipal House. Along with those sites, I also wanted to find some off-the-beaten-path spots.
While planning my Prague trip, I had used Rick Steves’ guidebook, and I remembered seeing a link to his audio tours. Before I left my hotel that morning, I quickly downloaded the “Rick Steves Audio Europe” app and found “Prague City Walk,” a 76-minute guide to the city. Using my ear buds and iPhone, I listened as Steves’ dialogue guided me from the Old Town Square, across the magnificent Charles Bridge, and on to Wenceslas Square.
I found the spoken guide to be charming and informative. Through Steves’ detailed directions, I not only learned about the long, sometimes tragic history that played out in the boulevard-like Wenceslas Square, but I also found some quirky sites, such as the statue of King Wenceslas riding an upside-down horse, which hangs from the ceiling of the Art Nouveau Lucerna Palace, and the retro Světozor Mall.
One of the great things about audio-guide apps is that many are available for free through the iPhone App Store. I think it’s a perfect tool for solo travelers. It certainly beats carrying around a guidebook, and without it, you never know when you might be passing by a fascinating piece of history!
3. Don’t shelve your phone
It can get a little expensive, but I recommend keeping your cellphone on and activated throughout the bulk of your international travels. While I was in the Czech Republic, Germany, and Denmark, I used Verizon’s $10-a-day TravelPass extensively. I also used a $5-a-day option while I was in Quebec. A more limited option is available for $70 per month.
The international roaming plan allowed me to not only make unlimited calls home to the U.S., but it also gave me access to the internet and all my apps, including the Apple map function. Believe me, that alone was worth the extra $100 or so that I paid on my next Verizon bill.
4. Let your feet be your guide
According to my Fitbit watch, I walked 110.4 miles during my two weeks in the Czech Republic. The week before I left, I sauntered in at a paltry 31.7 miles. So, yes, I’m a big travel walker.
I’m not patting myself on the back, though, because I know that many of the 260,899 steps I took on my trip were directly related to the fact that I’m basically a lazy traveler. Sometimes I’m just not up to figuring out the subway or tram systems in new cities.
In Prague, I had a round-trip tram ticket in my pocket, but I still walked all the way uphill to the Prague Castle because I wasn’t sure of where to board the tram. Still, it turned out to be one of my favorite outings in Prague because I got to take in the scenic neighborhoods and views along the way.
In a way, I think walking makes you feel more in control. Of course, the smartphone mapping functions help tremendously in bringing on that feeling!
5. Uber is your friend
That being said, I’m not averse to a little help from my favorite ride-share app from time to time. Although I was slow to warm up to Uber, I’ve found it to be invaluable almost everywhere I’ve traveled. I’ve used the ride service everywhere from San Francisco to Philadelphia, as well as in Prague and Berlin.
While taxis tend to feel a little sketchy to me, regardless of where I am, I haven’t had that experience with Uber. I like the fact that the drivers can always find me, even if I’m not exactly sure where I am myself. Also, I know the price before I get in the car, which can be comforting in a strange city.
And, depending on the Uber driver, the conversation is often pleasant and informative. On a recent ride from the Montreal Airport to my downtown hotel, my friendly driver filled me in on his Romanian heritage, and his immigration to Canada. In fact, I’ve found Uber drivers to be consistently helpful, pointing out landmarks and interesting facts about their cities – something I’ve hardly ever experienced with a taxi driver.
6. If all else fails, opt for the hop-on, hop-off
I distinctly remember the moment that hop-on, hop-off buses won me over. I was trudging through the streets of Kowloon, Hong Kong, in the early-evening hours, when a brightly-colored double-decker bus passed me by. Already weary from my day of searching for the right subway route, harbor ferry, and city bus to get to Kowloon’s Ladies’ Market, I remember thinking, “Why am I not on that bus?”
The next day, I bought a $55 day pass for the Hong Kong Big Bus, and I was whisked conveniently through the trendy shopping areas of Hong Kong, to the coastal town of Stanley, and onto a sampan boat for a tour of the Aberdeen Harbor.
Don’t get me wrong: Getting pleasantly lost in a new city is one of the joys of traveling for me. But battling a barrage of traffic to find my way can be a bit overwhelming in a hectic city like Hong Kong. I say give yourself a break in those situations.
7. Aim for the higher end on hotels
Hear me out on this one. I love a quirky little hotel or a cozy neighborhood Airbnb as much as the next person. But when I’m traveling alone – and especially in a foreign locale – I prefer a nice, full-service hotel.
My preference is based on many factors, including safety, convenience, and comfort. I’ve come to appreciate a helpful hotel concierge in a new city, and being able to communicate with English-speaking personnel is a wonderful bonus.
In the eastern-Czech Republic town of Ostrava, I chose the four-star Mercure Hotel mostly because of its city-center location. But also, because Ostrava is a less-touristy destination than other major Czech cities, I knew the English-speaking staff would be crucial. I ended up depending on the friendly front-desk attendants for directions, maps, and recommendations.
And, I hate to say it, but room service can sometimes salvage a grueling travel day. During a recent layover in Berlin, I was a bit worn out from a delayed train trip from Prague. After a quick nighttime walk to take in a couple of Berlin’s ‘must-sees’ – Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate – I retreated back to my room at the Hilton Berlin, hungry but not up to a restaurant meal. I reveled in my delicious room-service entree.
And that brings me to …
8. Take advantage of your good credit
One of the ways I’ve been able to stay in higher-end hotels is through the credit card points I accumulate throughout the year. By combining the rewards from several cards for my recent trip to Europe, I was able to book a layover night at the Le Meridien in Philadephia, two nights at the Prague Intercontinental, four nights at the Mercure in Ostrava, a night at the Hilton Berlin, and another layover night at the Hilton Garden Inn at New York City’s JFK Airport – all great hotels in convenient locations. I also used points/miles for three out of four of my fares for flights from Phoenix to Philadelphia to Prague to Copenhagen to New York City.
Although I’m not an expert at award travel (and there are plenty of people who are!), I used trial and error to find the best point/mile rates, and ultimately was able to cover most of my travel expenses, minus food and entertainment.
From what I’ve learned, success in the credit-card reward game depends mostly on having decent credit and paying off your balances regularly to avoid interest costs. Not a bad trade-off, in my opinion.
9. Embrace street dining
I’ve found one of the downsides of traveling solo to be dining alone. Although I’ve become somewhat comfortable sitting at a table by myself in a nice restaurant, it’s still not my favorite thing.
Choosing a seat at the restaurant’s bar is sometimes a good solution, as is finding a low-key restaurant with a casual atmosphere. Probably my favorite dining option when traveling alone, though, is seeking out street vendors or food trucks. What could be better than choosing what you want from an array of booths, and then finding a sunny city park for a picnic?
I found the perfect option during my daylong layover in Copenhagen. Not far from the city’s scenic Nyhavn Harbor is the Bridge Street Kitchen – an eclectic collection of cuisine options spread out near the Inderhavnsbroen Bridge. Billed as a “melting pot of street food kitchens and bars serving tasty food and drinks from around the world,” the Bridge Street Kitchen offers everything from Scandinavian open-face sandwiches to lamb curry to pizza and burgers.
I loved the fresh fish in the open-face sandwiches at Palægade Smørrebrød, and sitting at a picnic table in the warm sun was the perfect way to cap off my morning of exploring Copenhagen.
10. Geek out over history
While I’ve always loved history, my interests during travels as a college student and as a young parent ran more to beaches and camping. Now, I occasionally like to take in a medieval castle, as I did in Ostrava, or a historic fortress like the fascinating Plains of Abraham Museum and Citadelle of Quebec. On my layover in Philadelphia, I soaked up early-American history at the Liberty Bell Museum and Independence Hall.
11. Indulge your inner chef
If you’re a fan of cooking and international cuisines, like I am, cooking classes in foreign locales offer the perfect activity. In most cases, the classes are taught by locals, so they achieve a variety of travel goals – learning the culture, interacting with new people, and sampling authentic flavors.
I especially loved the Home’s Cooking School & Wet Market Tour that I took in Hong Kong (see my related post). Along with two classmates from Australia, I met up with the course owner and instructor Joyce at Hong Kong’s MTR Shau Kei Wan subway station. From there, we went to one of Hong Kong’s large street “wet markets” to buy ingredients for our coming meal.
The market was an eye-opener. Huge trays of prawns in one store front. Mounds of awabi (abalone) in another. And all over – fresh fish, still flopping from the ocean. In the outdoors booths, the vegetable and fruit vendors took over, offering glossy pamelos, vivid dragon fruit, and long ridge gourds.
From the market, we proceeded to Joyce’s high-rise apartment building to cook our meal of golden shrimp, spring rolls, and sweet dumplings – all delicious. Overall, the course turned out to a high point of my Hong Kong visit.
12. Cater to your interests
While there are a few downsides to solo travel, one of the big upsides is you can tailor your trip to your own interests, however obscure they may be. I have taken side trips to green chile markets, book sales, libraries, a flower show, and national parks just because they interest me. And almost everywhere I go, I find a hike that shows off the area’s landscapes – whether it’s on a beach, in the mountains, or in the desert.
Of course, plenty of traveling companions have accompanied me to some of those places through the years. But when you’re solo, you’re free to impulsively veer off your itinerary for something that piques your interest – and return again the next day if you feel like it.
Because, really, you never know when you might be back in Prague or Copenhagen or Hong Kong to take in those quirky sights.